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Las Vegas Journal - Escape Adventures offers eco-tours far from The Strip's hubbub

Escape Adventures offers eco-tours far from The Strip's hubbub.

Las Vegas Journal November 17, 2007
Article by Benjamin Spillman, Las Vegas Review-Journal McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 17--A journey into the gaudy chaos of the Strip is an escape from reality for nearly 40 million people annually.

For Jared Fisher, it's a rescue mission.

Fisher and his force of carbon-neutral outdoor guides infiltrate the Strip almost daily to extract their targets from the Las Vegas' polluted core of bright lights, concrete and sensory decadence.

They load bleary-eyed tourists and business travelers into vans powered by vegetable oil and drive away from the casinos, strip clubs and gut-buster buffets.

"That's not my Las Vegas," says Fisher, owner of Escape Adventures, an 18-year-old company that offers bicycle trips into Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

What makes Escape trips different from myriad helicopter tours or limousine cruises from Las Vegas into the Nevada outdoors is the effort Fisher makes to minimize their effect on the environment clients pay to experience. He's spent nearly $250,000 to offset Escape's effect on the environment. About $100,000 went toward solar cells to power the company's Moab, Utah, bike shop and tour warehouse. Another $121,000 went toward new diesel-powered trucks and vans Fisher then converted to run on vegetable oil. The conversion cost an additional $10,500.

He spends about four to six hours a week driving to restaurants near Escape's Las Vegas headquarters at 8221 W. Charleston Blvd. and siphons used oil from containers near the trash bins.

"It is kind of nice to escape the office," Fisher said. "I can read a book while I'm pumping grease."

He can also save a lot of cash.

So far this year he's collected about 3,000 gallons. That amounts to more than $9,000 in savings already, almost enough to pay for the cost of modifications to make six diesel vehicles in Escape's fleet capable of running on vegetable oil.

On a recent weekday Fisher set out from Las Vegas Cyclery, the bike shop he owns in conjunction with Escape Adventures, in a forest-green 1999 Ford F-250 to collect oil for the fleet.

The truck runs on diesel or vegetable oil, a feature that came in handy that very morning when Fisher realized the tank was near empty and he had to drive 17 miles from his rural home in Blue Diamond to the bike shop.

"I actually had to go raid my kitchen cabinet last night for corn oil," Fisher said. "But that's what is great -- you can cook with it, you can put it in your truck."

Indeed.

Just a few blocks from the bike shop Fisher backed the truck near some trash containers outside a Vietnamese restaurant. He jumps into the pickup's bed, pops open an attached tool bin and loads his arms with rags and hoses.

"You gotta watch out, man," Fisher warns two observers. "It could get greasy."

After hopping from the truck to the ground, Fisher lifts the lid on a container of grease and dips one end of a clear plastic hose into the liquid.

He prefers grease from Asian restaurants over the stuff discarded by burger joints. The burger and fry grease is too loaded with fatty acids and debris to work well with minimal processing. But oil from Asian restaurants is just right.

"That is some good grease," says Fisher, eyeing his reflection staring back from inside the grease bin. A clear reflection is one way to identify good grease from gunky goo that would only foul up a fuel system.

"There were probably 10,000 wontons fried in this," he says.

Two small pumps sucked the amber liquid into a large holding tank in the back of the truck. The pumps can move about seven gallons a minute.

"In the next 30 seconds I will save about $21 in fuel," Fisher says as the pumps whir.

With his grease load procured, Fisher drives back to the shop. He parks the truck next to a walled-off collection of yellow, plastic drums. He runs a hose from the truck into a cotton sack above one of the drums that serves as a filter.

After a few days at rest, the grease is ready for action. Escape Adventure guides can pump it into the fuel tanks on the company vans and strike out with clients for Red Rock, the Grand Canyon or anyplace else.

"It is perfect," said Brian "Moose" Ottesen, one of the guides.

Ottesen is one of as many as 25 Escape Adventure employees. He takes bikers, hikers, corporate groups and tourists to experience what he calls, "the better side of Las Vegas."

He said the grease-powered vans are great for driving clients, bikes and supplies to the Grand Canyon.

But for Ottesen, who left a corporate job in Seattle five years ago to dedicate more time to family and the outdoors, said the vans are just one aspect of the company's environmental ethic. The commitment is a large part of what keeps him on the job with Escape.

"I got several offers by other companies to come work for them. He was instantly the one I went with," Ottesen said. "Even before I moved to Vegas, I remember looking that company up."

Besides running what Fisher calls, "veggie trucks," Escape dramatically reduced its trash output through an aggressive recycling program. Bike tires and inner tubes are saved, sorted and given to recyclers for conversion into everything from handbags to livestock feed.

Fisher and his wife, Heather, are also known for advocating on behalf of cyclists by pushing for new bike paths in the city. Escape Adventures Las Vegas Cyclery employees get a $5 bonus every day they ride a bike to work.

"If you are an outdoor guide ... you should have some environmental responsibility," Ottesen said.

Fisher documents Escape Adventures' environmental responsibility in a 5-inch-thick binder he keeps in his Las Vegas office.

The binder contains the documentation Escape needs for certification as an environmentally and socially friendly business. What that means is Escape is evaluated on the basis of a triple bottom line that measures environmental ethos and commitment to community-building in addition to profits.

The certification tells customers and employees the commitment is legitimate and it provides a yardstick for Fisher to improve.

"You can't manage what you are not measuring," said Brian Mullis, president of the group Sustainable Travel International, which manages the certification program.

It costs businesses anywhere from $200 to $2,500 to apply to certification. It costs $800 to $1,200 plus expenses each day auditors are out to verify steps a business is taking, Mullis said.

So far, there are only about 1,200 businesses in the world certified under the system Escape uses.

But Mullis said he expects that number to grow as customers demand more environmental and community responsibility.

Mullis said more Nevada hospitality companies, including resort giant MGM Mirage, are inquiring about certification levels. He plans to attend the upcoming Governor's Conference on Tourism to network with more Las Vegas companies.

"As more an more companies say they are green, the definition of green is going to become more difficult to interpret," Mullis said. "They are dealing in a very competitive environment."

Fisher said the environmental outreach is translating into profits. But he said he sticks to the effort mostly because he believes in it. He said he wants to be a positive example for his three boys, Orion, 9, Dakota, 7, and Phoenix, 5.

He also believes other businesses in Las Vegas will follow the example if they want to continue doing business in one of the most crowded, water-hungry and economically important places in the Mojave Desert.

"If we want to live like this in 50 years, people are going to have to start changing now," Fisher said.

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About Escape

Specializing in western North America, Escape Adventures is a leader in first-class eco-friendly cycling and multi-sport adventure. In 2006, we became the world's first carbon neutral outfitter, bringing sustainable adventure to all the places we visit, from Alaska to Belize and beyond. By simply joining a tour with us, outdoor enthusiasts are now helping to preserve the beautiful backcountry areas they enjoy.

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